Following on from February’s review of Matthew P. Martyniuk’s Beasts of Antiquity: Stem-Birds in the Solnhofen Limestone, it’s time once again to look at another recently published dinosaur-themed book.
Anyone who knows anything about Mesozoic dinosaurs will know that the British Isles – England specifically – has a special role in the history of our understanding of these animals. This is the place where non-bird dinosaurs were first discovered, recognised and studied, and consequently it was British scientists who did all the very early work of the early and mid-1800s that allowed scientists (and people at large) to appreciate the fact that theropods, sauropods and ornithischians of diverse and often gigantic form once stalked the land.
Of course, this all sounds horribly clichéd and I (and many other authors) have said this sort of thing with tedious regularity. Scientific attention in the decades that followed those early British announcements eventually switched to the Americas, Africa and Asia; even so, it remains undeniable that the British Isles have a surprisingly rich and diverse Mesozoic dinosaur fauna. Many British dinosaurs are highly scrappy compared to the far superior specimens that come from other parts of the world, but the British record is still globally significant in including species that comes from parts of the Lower and Middle Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous that are barely represented elsewhere.
Furthermore, the British record is really quite good when it comes to how many dinosaur lineages are represented. There’s virtually everything from spinosaurids and tyrannosauroids to heterodontosaurids and close relatives of duckbills (Naish & Martill 2007, 2008). Among the groups considered especially well represented in the British fossil record are early sauropodomorphs (like Thecodontosaurus), sauropods of several groups, early thyreophorans (like Scelidosaurus), stegosaurs, ankylosaurs, and iguanodontians.
Then there are those groups whose alleged presence has been the subject of a fair amount of flip-flopping and uncertainty, like mamenchisaurids, dromaeosaurids and pachycephalosaurs. Do we have ceratopsians? Well, we’ll just see.
A substantial home-grown set of dinosaur specialists (names to mention include Peter Galton, the late Alan Charig, Justin Delair, David Norman, Angela Milner, Mike Benton, Paul Barrett, Paul Upchurch, my former PhD supervisor Dave Martill, among others) mean that Britain’s dinosaur fossils have been extensively evaluated, re-evaluated, reviewed, and re-reviewed such that virtually every scrap and fragment forms the subject of several published contributions. Some years back, Dave Martill and I managed to produce a colossally wordy volume purely on the dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight (Martill & Naish 2001), and we also published two articles that reviewed the whole of the British Mesozoic dinosaur assemblage (Naish & Martill 2007, 2008). I’m a bit embarrassed by those published works these days (more for the diagrams than the text, it has to be said), but you live and learn.
It’s with this background in mind that we turn to yet another review of the British Mesozoic dinosaur assemblage, but this time it’s a popular book: Dean Lomax and Nobumichi Tamura’s Dinosaurs of the British Isles (Lomax & Tamura 2014). Over 400 pages long, beautifully produced and designed and absolutely stuffed full of colour photos and life reconstructions, it’s a lavish and comprehensive guide to the Mesozoic dinosaurs of Britain - the most complete version of this sort of thing published so far. Skeletal reconstructions by Greg Paul, Scott Hartman and Jaime Headden also appear throughout, as do photos of locations, specimens in the field, shots of specimens on display, and palaeomaps.
The book is arranged stratigraphically, going through Triassic and Jurassic dinosaurs before getting to the Cretaceous ones. Species are discussed in close proximity according to stratigraphy: the chunk of the book on the dinosaurs of the Oxford Clay Formation, for example, discusses stegosaur Loricatosaurus, ornithopod Callovosaurus, sauropod Cetiosauriscus, and theropods Eustreptospondylus and Metriacanthosaurus close together. Each species gets a table which lists etymology, locality, estimated size, notable specimens, synonymy and other details, and a section of text then discusses each species within the context of what authors have said about it (Lomax & Tamura 2014).
The text is very concise, most species getting something like 200 words or less. The text is accurate so far as I can tell and the standard of editing is high (I haven’t spotted any typos); I have to say that I find the writing a bit clumsy in places though. Dean has been wise in avoiding the tangled but often incredibly esoteric taxonomic issues that surround British dinosaurs, meaning that the book will leave you disappointed if you were hoping for that sort of thing. Of course, the majority of potential buyers do not want that sort of thing.
Needless to say, articles that have appeared since the book was published mean that various entries only reflect knowledge up to a certain point. The sections on Thecocoelurus and Calamosaurus would be complicated by the recent proposal that the specimens concerned come from ornithomimosaurs (Allain et al. 2014), for example. A reanalysis of the English hadrosaur-like taxa Trachodon cantabrigiensis and Iguanodon hilli has just been published (Barrett et al. 2014). However, an in-press version of this article was evidently known to the author and the relevant conclusions are incorporated anyway.
While this economical approach as goes the text is understandable in view of the visuals (more on those in a moment), I do wish, nevertheless, that citations had been peppered throughout. There are none; not one, which limits the value of the book for those readers who want to know more or follow up on various of the observations and statements. Random example: some readers might want to know more about the “fourth large-sized* theropod [from] the Wessex Formation of the Isle of Wight”, said to be “currently awaiting a more detailed description”, yet there aren’t any clues from the text where to go to find out more (the answer is Benson et al. 2009, and the theropod concerned is MIWG 6350). However, remember this mention of MIWG 6350 and please read on. Incidentally, the “currently awaiting a more detailed description” thing isn’t true: the paper concerned described MIWG 6350 as fully as could be expected. It’s more material that’s needed, not more description.
* “Large-sized”? Why not just “large”?
The decision to avoid citations was made, I think, because adding them might make the text look too technical. It can’t be for space reasons, since there’s already a 13-page-long ‘Further Reading’ section at the back which cites pretty much all the literature concerned.
Anyway, the key thing about this book is its use of imagery. The book is packed with visuals: with beautiful, large, high-fidelity images of fossils, with photos of field sites and museum displays, with skeletal reconstructions, and with numerous life reconstructions. Even if the text were useless or execrable (which it isn’t), I would tell people to buy the book for its pictures alone, especially the specimen photos. There are pages and pages and pages of them. Many exceed in quality the only existing published pictures of the specimens concerned, and it’s obvious that Dean went to extraordinary trouble to obtain them. I’m still not sure how he pulled off what must have been a logistical and financial nightmare, since museums (the owners of the vast majority of the specimens pictured here) do not simply allow authors to use images of specimens for free. A number of images of specimens from private collections are also included. And the completeness of this visual record does, I would say, make up for those shortcomings regarding the text. Recall above my complaints about the lack of mention of MIWG 6350, or of Benson et al. (2009), in the text? Well, turn the page and.... there, on page 356, are virtually all the known elements of this specimen. It isn’t said in the text that these excellent colour photos pertain to the same animal, meaning that the reader is left to work it out for themselves but, whatever, they're there, they're big, and they're beautiful.
The many life reconstructions included throughout the book are variable in quality. Some are very strong and look great (examples: Thecodontosaurus, Juratyrant and Echinodon) but others look a bit rushed and, though accurate in proportions and overall form, aren’t rendered well (examples: Dacentrurus and Cumnoria). I see an inappropriate amount of cranial shrink-wrapping in a few of the reconstructions (examples: Eustreptospondylus and Metriacanthosaurus). A thing that bugs me about a few of Tamura’s illustrations is that the ear is in the wrong place: look at the Eustreptospondylus on the cover, and you’ll note that ear is too far away from the rear part of the skull (where the otic region is) and is positioned on the side of the neck, not where it should be. But palaeoart is a journey, its purveyors tending to improve their product over time.
To conclude, Dinosaurs of the British Isles is a really nice, very well packaged and incredibly well illustrated volume. Getting a book like this published is not easy, and making money from it is even less easy. While it can’t be said to have special value as an academic contribution (nor was that ever planned to be the case), those numerous, brilliant photographs will mean that anyone with a serious interest in British dinosaurs, or fossil dinosaurs in general, will want it for those pictures alone. And it might end up being highly cited for the same reason.
Dean Lomax & Nobumichi Tamura. 2014. Dinosaurs of the British Isles. Siri Scientific Press. £33.00. Softback, bibliography, index, glossary, pp. 416. ISBN 978-0-9574530-5-0. Buy from the publisher here. Buy direct from the author here.
For previous articles on various of the subjects mentioned here, see...
- Oh no, not another new Wealden theropod!
- The Wealden Bible: English Wealden Fossils, 2011
- Ostrich dinosaurs invade Europe! Or do they?
Refs - -
Allain, R., Vullo, R., Le Loeuff, J. & Tournepiche, J.-F., 2014. European ornithomimosaurs (Dinosauria, Theropoda): an undetected record. Geologica Acta 12 (2), in press.
Barrett. P. M., Evans, D. C. & Head, J. J. 2014. A re-evaluation of purported hadrosaurid dinosaur specimens from the “Middle” Cretaceous of England. In Eberth, D. A. & Evans, D. C. (eds) Hadrosaurs. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, pp. 96-107.
Benson, R. B. J., Brusatte, S. L., Hutt, S. & Naish, D. 2009. A new large basal tetanuran (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Wessex Formation (Barremian) of the Isle of Wight, England. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29, 612-615.
Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. 2007. Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: basal Dinosauria and Saurischia. Journal of the Geological Society, London 164, 493-510.